A Primer on Adult Learning

Every day, every single one of us learns something new. Although what and where you learn differs from day to day, learning itself is a life constant. We learn in order to inform ourselves about the world and people around us, and to be better prepared for possible future challenges.

Learning: the act of acquiring new, or modifying and reinforcing existing, knowledge, behaviour, skills, values or preferences which may lead to a potential change in synthesising information, depth of knowledge, attitude or behaviour (Wikipedia).

In this era of ‘Digital Darwinism’ (Edward Schwartz), adaptability is more important than ever; indeed, the rate at which technology and society are currently evolving makes learning a key source of competitive advantage for individuals and organisations. Businesses must balance two sometimes competing priorities: improving productivity while simultaneously encouraging growth and innovation. To do this requires a workforce that’s inquisitive, open to ideas, and constantly developing, as is the incorporation of the learning function into company strategy and work culture. The study and theorising of ‘adult learning’ seeks to respond to these professional demands: how best can we get our adult workforce to learn? Will this put us in good stead for future innovation?

Adult learning theories exist in a number of variations, all of which are based on the steadfast assumption that adult learning is fundamentally different to that of child learning. Where child learning is primarily rooted in instruction, adult learning is said to be rooted 70% in on-the-job learning, 20% in social learning (learning from others), and 10% in formal teaching. This 70:20:10 model, although a mere estimate lacking empirical foundations, is widely referenced. Indeed, it appears to hark back to antiquity, for Confucius himself is attributed the following saying:

“Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.”

Adult learning theories are based in utilising adult life experience and fitting learning around external life requirements and pressures (e.g. families and resulting time constraints). Perhaps the most influential adult learning theory is Malcolm Knowles’ theory of ‘andragogy’, developed in the 1960s. Knowles’ theory is based on six assumptions of adult learning:

1. The learners’ need to know why and for what purpose they are learning

2. The self-concept of the learner as an autonomous being

3. The learners’ prior life experiences

4. The individuals’ readiness to learn

5. The orientation towards problem-centred learning

6. The motivation to learn.

It’s notable that the same characteristics are generally identified by the many others who have independently theorised about adult learning.

Neurological study is also important to the understanding of learning. Research reveals that learning is based on strengthening neural synaptic connections, and there appears to be no limit to the amount of neural connections that can be created in a person’s lifetime. The highest quality learning engages the entire brain: sensory and emotional functions together with rational and logical functions. Study of mirror neurons also reveals that individuals can learn from simply imagining themselves carrying out a task, as well as by doing tasks themselves and watching others. In all, neurological research shows us that repetition and variation are integral to effective learning.

If we put theory and science side by side, what do we get? Adult learning needs to:

1. Be constant (i.e. little and often)
2. The subjects must be immediately relevant to work/life problems
3. The manner of learning needs to be varied
4. Adults must know why they are learning
5. They need to be given control over the planning and evaluation of their learning experience
6. Learning should be focused on problem solving and building on the individuals’ past experience.

With this in mind, CRF offers the following recommendations for the design of adult learning strategies within organisations:

1. Make learners aware of how they learn. Teach them how to reflect on what they have learned and how they can apply it in practice
2. Open up organisation boundaries to stimulate the flow of ideas through cross functional projects, action learning teams, discussions between peers and senior leaders, etc.
3. Make sure that the context in which employees work is receptive to the new skills they are developing and allows them to put these skills into action
4. Create a space for people to engage in reflection and analysis to consolidate learning
5. Ensure learning sessions are short in duration, frequent in occurrence, and contain only directly relevant information
6. Engage different senses and emotions through stories, videos, graphics, text, and hands on experience, and incorporate learning activities to touch each learning style (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic)
7. Ensure close proximity in time and space to the job at hand. In other words, it is important that learning can be immediately carried out at critical points when professional help/guidance is needed, and close to the realm of its application (i.e. the workplace).

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